Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Cinema

boxToday I’m taking a look at the recent box set Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Cinema from Kino Lorber, a set which includes five films that you could purchase separately or in this collection. Let’s take a brief look at each film, then the set as a whole.

1_He_Ran

He Ran All the Way (1951) John Berry
(1:17)

John Garfield’s last film before his death at age 39 is one of the first “family held hostage” films, one that’s been imitated many times, yet hard to beat. Garfield plays Nick Robey, a low-life thief who screws up a robbery by killing a cop and abandoning his partner (the wonderful Norman Lloyd). Robey does manage to hang onto $10,000, but doesn’t know how long he can outrun the cops. He desperately needs a hideout. Robey finds a girl named Peg (Shelley Winters) that seems interested in him and decides she’ll be his ticket to safety, whether she wants to or not.

He Ran All the Way features some superb work, most notably Garfield’s portrayal of a paranoid thug and James Wong Howe’s amazing cinematography, but many have wrongly overlooked Winters’s exceptional acting, mainly due to the attention focused on Garfield’s final performance. Although we’re now used to “family held hostage” movies, I challenge you to find a performance as good as Winters’s, one that reflects the fear, love, excitement, and bravery of her character. The film’s final scene is also one of the most powerful in noir.

Extras: theatrical trailer

4/5

2-Witness

Witness to Murder (1954) Roy Rowland
(1:23)

Witness to Murder gets unfairly compared to a similar film that came out the same year, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Many consider Witness to Murder a ripoff of Rear Window, but people tend to forget that Witness to Murder was released nearly four months before the Hitchcock film ever opened. No one disputes that Rear Window is the better film (by far), but Witness to Murder stands as a mostly solid noir thriller, largely due to the cinematography of the great John Alton. Barbara Stanwyck is good (as always) as Cheryl Draper, a woman who witnessed – or thinks she witnessed – a man next door murder his wife. George Sanders, as the suspected man, is also good. The romance between Cheryl and a police lieutenant (Gary Merrill) isn’t so great, but the film is still worth a look.

Extras: theatrical trailer

3/5

3-Big

Big House, U.S.A. (1955) Howard W. Koch
(1:23)

Man, what a cast! Broderick Crawford, Ralph Meeker, Reed Hadley, William Talman, Lon Chaney and Charles Bronson? Wow… The biggest surprise here is that everyone gets a pretty good role and for the most part, each actor runs with it. Meeker plays Jerry “Iceman” Barker, a lifetime criminal who kidnaps a 10-year-old boy who’s just run away from summer camp. The boy suffers from asthma and you can tell something pretty awful is going to happen to him. (It does.) Barker is caught and sent to prison, but he says nothing about the ransom money he collected from the boy’s rich father.

Inside the prison, Barker meets the other inmates (Crawford, Talman, Chaney, and Bronson), all of whom hate him for having involved a kid in his crimes. Yet Rollo Lamar (Crawford), the worldly yet philosophical leader of the group who’s planning an escape, sees an opportunity to pull Barker in with them, hoping to score some of Barker’s hidden loot.

Big House, U.S.A. has enough material for at least three movies. It takes awhile for us to reach the Big House itself (and if I have to tell you what “The Big House” is, you haven’t watched nearly enough crime pictures), but you never feel cheated because of it. More people should see this film, especially for the performances.

Extras: none

4/5

4-Bullet

A Bullet for Joey (1955) Lewis Allen
(1:27)

A Communist agent (Peter Van Eyck) hires an exiled American gangster Joe Victor (George Raft) to travel to Montreal in order to kidnap an atomic physicist (George Dolenz). Victor calls on his old flame Joyce (Audrey Totter) to get the scoop on the physicist’s routines and habits. Meanwhile, Canadian Police Inspector Raoul Leduc (Edward G. Robinson) investigates a series of seemingly unrelated crimes that point to something big.

Despite a great cast, A Bullet for Joey never really rises above its pedestrian script. Even Edward G. Robinson – always superlative, even in bad pictures – seems bored to tears in nearly every scene. If Robinson and Audrey Totter can’t save your film, there’s something very much wrong with it and what’s wrong is a dull story with one-dimensional writing and characters. I’ve never really cared for George Raft, but a least he provides a little tension here… well, for awhile. A Bullet for Joey is easily the weakest, least interesting film in the set, but you should see it at least once.

Extras: theatrical trailer

2.5/5

5-Storm

Storm Fear (1956) Cornell Wilde
(1:29)

Another variation on the home-invasion story. After being wounded pulling off a bank robbery, Charlie Blake (Cornell Wilde) decides to hide out with his weak-kneed brother Fred (Dan Duryea) and his family, consisting of his wife (Jean Wallace) and kid (David Stollery). Fred’s New England farm home would make for a nice hideout if not for the approaching snowstorm. Some nice noir elements, but things get rather ridiculous and out-of-control in the way soap operas often do. We’re certainly not used to seeing Duryea playing the weakling in noir, but Steven Hill as the psychotic criminal Bernie provides some genuine interest. Good performances; worth a look for noir fans.

Extras: zip

3/5

Bottom line: Kino Lorber’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema is a set worth owning for any film noir fan. He Ran All the Way and Big House, U.S.A. are easily the best films in the set, absolutely must-have movies for noir heads. Sure, you could purchase the two films individually, but even at Amazon’s price, you’re going to pay about $38 for them. The Amazon price for the entire set is currently $37.99, so you might as well get the whole thing (which at that price, comes to about $7.50 per film). Witness to Murder and Storm Fear are certainly worth watching and worth watching more than once. Your mileage may vary with A Bullet for Joey, which wouldn’t kill me if I never saw it again. The transfers and sound are generally good, probably the best these films are ever going to look and sound. Sure, some added supplements would’ve been nice, but we have what we have. At $37.99 or lower, I’d jump on it in a second. Let me know what you think.

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5 thoughts on “Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Cinema

  1. Pingback: Movies Watched in July 2016 Part III | Journeys in Darkness and Light

  2. Thanks! BIG HOUSE U.S.A. is definitely a must-have. I think I picked mine up at the TCM shop or Deep Discount with a coupon code, so it came out to about $30, so keep an eye on those sites. I’ll be eager to hear what you think!

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